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THE CHALLENGE

If there is one thing that people across the world can agree on, it's that we're facing challenging times. There are dangers facing the global economy and local economies, and crises in the environment and international relations. Some people argue that the various local and global are all facets of one deeper crisis of transition, as we cope with the powers made available to us by science and technology and seek to steer a course that avoids destruction and emerges out into more stable times. The American biologists Edward O. Wilson speaks of us making a journey "through the bottleneck".

"Science and technology, combined with a lack of self-understanding and a Palaeolithic obstinacy, brought us to where we are today," he says. "Now science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage, must see us through the bottleneck and out."

And are we up to the challenge? That is the question highlighted by the Canadian thinker Thomas Homer-Dixon. What’s enabled us to survive through many evolutionary challenges, he says, has been our ingenuity. Whatever the problem, we have been able to think our way out of it. But, he goes on, could it be that the problems which we face today may in fact be too great for us? Could there be an ingenuity gap, a shortfall between the extent of what’s needed and the amount that we actually have available?

We need, he says, to develop social ingenuity as well as technical ingenuity – the ability to put into place social mechanisms to enable the technical solutions to be applied. It is like shaping channels for water to flow. The flow may come naturally if the right structure is in place for it.

The language then involves not only practical matters of science and technology but systems and structures in society which can help ideas to be brought forward and shaped and applied to assist the process of repair and regeneration.

The Resource Use Institute was founded by Robert Robertson to take a step towards facing up to what, back in the 1960s, he saw as a slow decline of western civilisation. In such a situation, he wrote, "groups of like-minded people can meet to discuss what can be done to 'improve the world'... In this humble world of private thinking the seeds of a desirable future may be sown. It was in this spirit that the Resource Use Institute was formed in December 1969 in Pitlochry."

The aim of focusing on the wise use of resources, he said, was to seek for "lines of research which might help us to find our way towards a world in which east and west, north and south, would combine to share the sum of resources more fairly and sustainably. The aim must be to find a road to a new smooth curve and thus to avoid catastrophe."

Since his death in 1999, RUI has gone through a lower-key period, but now with the scale of the challenges facing countries and communities it is reshaping itself to do what it can to promote discussion of new ideas that can make a positive impact for society. The topics on these pages are a few examples.

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